The Remorseful One Prevails

“In warfare there is a saying
rather than a host
better to be a guest
rather than advance an inch
better to retreat a foot
this means to form no ranks
to put on no armor
to brandish no weapons
to repulse no enemy
no fate is worse than to have no enemy
to have no enemy is to lose one’s treasure
thus when opponents are evenly matched
the remorseful one prevails”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 69, translation by Red Pine)

WANG CHEN says, “In warfare, we say the one who mobilizes first is the host and the one who responds is the guest. Sages only go to war when they have no choice. Hence, they are the guest.”

CHIAO HUNG says, “This was a saying of ancient military strategists.” If so, they remain unnamed. Sun-tzu, meanwhile, calls the invading force the k’o (guest) (Suntzu Pingfa: 2.20).

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “According to the Tao of warfare, we should avoid being the first to mobilize troops, and we should go to war only after receiving Heaven’s blessing.’

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “The host resists, and the guest agrees. The host toils, and the guest relaxes. One advances with pride, while the other retreats in humility. One advances with action, while the other retreats in quiet. Those who meet resistance with agreement, toil with relaxation, pride with humility, and action with stillness have no enemy. Wherever they go, they conquer.”

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “In warfare, sages leave no tracks. They advance by retreating.”

WU CH’ENG says, “Those who go to war form themselves into ranks, equip themselves with weapons, and advance against the enemy. But when sages go to war, they act as if there were no ranks, there were no armor, there were no weapons, and as if there were no enemies.”

SUN-TZU says, “Generals who advance with no thought of fame, who retreat with no fear of punishment, who think only of protecting their country and helping their king are the treasures of the realm” (Suntzu Pingfa: 10.24).

SU CH’E says, “Sages regard compassion as their treasure. To treat killing lightly would be to lose the reason for compassion.”

TE-CH’ING says, “When opponents are evenly matched and neither is superior, the winner is hard to determine. But whichever one is remorseful and compassionate will win. For the Way of Heaven is to love life and to help those who are compassionate to overcome their enemies.”

WANG PI says, “Those who are remorseful sympathize with their opponents. They try not to gain an advantage but to avoid injury. Hence, they always win.”

WANG P’ANG says, “To be remorseful is to be compassionate. Those who are compassionate are able to be courageous. Thus, they triumph.”

LIN HSI-YI says, “Those who attack with drums and cheer the advent of war are not remorseful. They are remorseful who do not consider warfare a pleasure but an occasion for mourning. In this verse, warfare is only a metaphor for the Tao.”

LAO-TZU says, “When you kill another / honor him with your tears / when the battle is won / treat it as a wake” (Taoteching: 31).

And RED PINE notes that lines ten and eleven may seem strange when we read them for the first time. I know they always trip me up. I keep thinking “to have no enemy” would be great. It just goes to show how little I know. But, Red Pine says, “The import [of these lines] would seem to be that without an enemy, we would have no recipient of our compassion and thus no reason to practice it.”

With today’s verse, I feel the need to once again point out that none of these are stand-alone verses. Each verse is a continuation of the previous ones. And Lao-tzu will have more to say on these things in the verses to follow. Sometimes I almost regret the format of my blog, which takes one verse each day. I wonder, are my followers keeping up with each of my posts? Did they miss one a few verses back that would shed some light on this one? I try to keep that in mind as I go about writing my commentary, My own familiarity with the verses before and after may be helpful to my own understanding; but your understanding won’t be helped, if I fail to convey each verse’s commentary with that necessary familiarity with the context of the whole Taoteching.

Anyway, I say all of that to say that Lao-tzu has been talking about the virtue of non-aggression for the last few verses, now. Two verses ago he talked about his three great treasures, number one being compassion. Compassion, he said, enables the compassionate one to be brave on the battlefield. In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu pointed out the perfect officer (who wasn’t armed), the perfect warrior (who wasn’t angry), the perfect victor (who wasn’t hostile), and the perfect commander (who acted humble), to showcase the virtue of non-aggression.

Today’s verse has us in a state of warfare again. Might as well, it seems to be our natural state, of late. And, it requires a bit of explaining, with its interesting takes on being a host or a guest, advancing and retreating, and the real zinger, the perils of having no enemy.

Should we be a host or a guest? George W. Bush infamously proclaimed we needed to battle our enemy over there so we wouldn’t have to battle them here at home. But, were we being the guest when we invaded the Middle East?

I would say not. Our invading host was not the guest, and we destroyed the homes of the countries we invaded, leaving their inhabitants homeless, and therefore guests (in refugee camps).

Is it better to advance, or to retreat? I am no military strategist, but I can’t help but think that a lot of the retreating before our armies has given the advantage to our so-called enemies. Better to live to fight another day. It is hard to repel an invading army, but an occupying force is costly to maintain. Time, my friends, is on their side, not ours.

What about the virtue of non-aggression? What if we formed no ranks, if we put on no armor, if we brandished no weapons, if we repulsed no enemy?

And this “no fate worse than to have no enemy”? What is that about, again? I mean, wouldn’t it be best if we had no enemies? (I am still thinking of my post from yesterday’s verse on the perfect). Well, Red Pine took a stab at understanding Lao-tzu, here. And, I think he is right. If we had no enemy, we wouldn’t have anyone upon which to practice our treasured compassion.

And, anyway, let’s be realistic, do we really expect our real enemy, the state, to ever not be manufacturing enemies for us wherever there are precious limited resources for us to go to war over? My admittedly naive dream of having no enemies is just not going to happen. And for that, perhaps, we should be thankful. If… If, we will practice the needed compassion in the face of these enemies. You can’t very well repulse no enemy if you have no enemy to repulse.

Lao-tzu says, “the remorseful one prevails” and by “remorseful” he means the one with compassion on the battlefield, the one who practices the virtue of non-aggression.

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

LIN HSI-YI (FL. 1234-1260). Scholar-official who produced commentaries to a number of classics. His commentary on the Taoteching is noted for its clarity. Lao-tzu k’ou-yi.

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